December 2004: The Right is Wrong and the Left is Right

Public opinion in Canada, as in the U.S., pulled to the right
December 1, 2004

Reading Lewis Lapham’s chilling account in Harper’s of how public opinion in the U.S. was dragged to the reactionary right—and the similar account by Eric Alterman and Paul McLeary that you’ll find on Pages 8-10—I gave thanks that the same mass brainwashing exercise in Canada has not (so far) been as successful.

It has converted many people in this country to neoliberalism. It has made Canada considerably less fair and compassionate than it was in the 1960s and early ‘70s. But it hasn’t transformed most Canadians into such narrow-minded dullards that they would accept the conversion of their country into a neocolonial bully abroad and an inequitable, militaristic, Orwellian plutocracy at home—  much less elect—and then re-elect—a regime that verges on neo-fascism.

As pollster Michael Adams documents in his insightful Penguin Canada book Fire and Ice (now available in paperback), most Canadians hold opinions and attitudes that are markedly different from those of Americans on a wide range of issues. As a nation, we not only still diverge from U.S. values and priorities—we reject them. The continentalist view incessantly voiced by many of our journalists, politicians and academics that Canada is drifting inexorably into a greater economic and philosophical alliance with the United States is a myth, says Adams.    

Drawing on decades of polling on both sides of the border, his book shows that, far from coming together, Canada and the U.S. continue to differ significantly on most important social, economic, cultural and environmental issues. That’s something to be thankful for, but hardly grounds for complacency. The same powerful forces of reaction that popularized the cult of individualism in the U.S. have been at work in Canada, too, and still are. The wave of propaganda deifying entrepreneurial CEOs and extolling corporate globalization has stalled Canada’s progress toward a just society, and has even changed the advance into a retreat on some fronts.

I still vividly recall the heady post-war years of the 1950s, ‘60s, and early ‘70s, when it seemed that the march to a much improved social and economic system in Canada was unstoppable. Medicare was pioneered by Tommy Douglas and his CCF government in Saskatchewan despite the fierce opposition of doctors and business leaders. Medicare later became a national program and Tommy the founding leader of the NDP. The Canada Pension Plan was established. The Unemployment Insurance program was immensely improved. Air Canada, Canadian National Railways, and later Petro-Canada were the stars in a firmament of proud, publicly-owned institutions. The National Energy Program (NEP) was legislated to protect our oil reserves and the Foreign Investment Review Agency (FIRA) to guard against foreign takeovers of our vital resources and industries.

The Liberal party in those days was also a small-l liberal party to some degree. In government, it had cabinet luminaries like Eric Kierans, Monique Bégin, Bryce Mackasey, Allan MacEachen, Warren Allmand and John Munro—and even Pierre Trudeau early in his political career—who were as left-of-centre as many NDPers. (When Munro, then Minister of Labour, asked me to write a speech for him announcing sweeping pro-union reforms of the Canada Labour Code in the House of Commons, I agreed—on condition that he not change a word of my text. He delivered it exactly as written. The mind boggles when contemplating the likelihood of my writing a speech for any Liberal cabinet minister today.)

Even the old Progressive Conservative party had leaders in those days who arguably made the party label less of an oxymoron. Robert Stanfield comes to mind at the federal level (and even in some policy areas John Diefenbaker), and a few of the previous PC Ontario premiers like John Robarts and Bill Davis, who admittedly seem to have been as progressive as they were conservative only in retrospect and when compared to the latter-day Harrises and Kleins.

I’ve written many times about the reversal of Canada’s forward march, starting in the mid-1970s and continuing to this day, and how it was accomplished by a crafty coalition of business, media, political and academic manipulators. No need, therefore, to reiterate how, like its U.S. counterpart, this campaign was amply funded, brilliantly conceived, and ruthlessly implemented. All I want to underline here is that a key indispensable component of this strategy, in Canada as in the U.S., was to change public opinion—to make Canadians accept, if not support, the imposition of corporate rule and the destruction of the welfare state.

So, year by year, the retreat from the goal of social and economic justice was masterminded and most Canadians persuaded that the setbacks were all the result of irresistible global forces. Deficits were deliberately incurred to excuse the rollback of social programs. Air Canada, CN, and dozens of other Crown corporations were privatized. The NEP and FIRA were dismantled. The UI was gutted to deny benefits to most of the unemployed. The tax system was perverted to allow investors and the rich to shrug off their share of the costs of running the country.    

Most of the constraints on business power and greed were removed. Regulations designed to protect citizens and the environment from corporate predators were scrapped or weakened. Control of both our mainstream political parties was seized by the private market lobby, who committed them to aiding and abetting the corporate agenda. A “free trade” system was adopted that decimated manufacturing jobs, opened Canadian industries and resources to foreign takeovers, switched key policy-making from elected governments to unelected offshore tribunals, and greatly undermined Canadian sovereignty.

A massive counter-revolution of this kind, no matter how stretched over decades, could not ordinarily be carried out without “the consent of the governed.” That the abrogation of much of the progress achieved in the post-war period was accepted with only murmurs of regret by most Canadians—and no taking to the streets by the millions as would have occurred in most countries in Europe—attests to the effectiveness of the right-wing élite’s propaganda machine. It did the job it was built to do. It made Canadians acquiesce to the brutalization of their society. But not, it should be re-emphasized, to the extent that an even more regressive turnabout was accepted in the U.S.

Adams cites some Canadian characteristics and factors that differentiate us from our American neighbours. We’re not as deferential to authority. We’re not nearly as militaristic or jingoistic. We don’t carry on a love affair with guns. Far fewer of us, even on a per capita basis, are religious fundamentalists. We have viable third and fourth political parties instead of the Tweedledum-Tweedledee two-party U.S. system. And the list goes on.

A simple way to assess the extent to which the “neoliberalization” of the U.S. has exceeded the process in Canada is by looking at the not-so-subtle change in the definition of two political labels: “liberal” and “socialist.” As Lapham noted, to be called a “liberal” in the U.S. in the 1950s and ‘60s was to be complimented. Today it’s an epithet, a term of opprobrium, the ultimate in political deprecation. As for calling a U.S. citizen a “socialist” these days, that’s almost as bad as calling him a terrorist.

In Canada, the word “liberal” has not fallen into disfavour. It’s still a perfectly acceptable term to apply to anyone with progressive views. But “socialist” has been stripped of much of its former repute. Once a widely accepted definition of a proponent of social justice, it now has taken on the connotations of radical extremism. Even the NDP, which was built on an avowedly socialist platform, now shuns the term. The farthest an NDP politician will go these days is to describe himself or herself as a “social democrat.” Thus has the discourse of the left, along with its policies and principles, been pulled from left to centre to right.

In Fire and Ice, Michael Adams is ebulliently optimistic that the political and cultural divergence of Canada from the U.S. will continue, and our more caring and collectiv-ist values preserved. He may be right. But the right’s counter-revolution still grinds on in this country, as it does to the south. Privatization is more rampant than ever. NAFTA and its multitude of WTO spinoffs still evoke little public concern or opposition. The steady media drumbeat for closer integration with the U.S. is still pounding. Corporate rule is still well-entrenched and spreading its tentacles everywhere.

And all these backsliding developments are happening because most Canadians have been duped into accepting them as unavoidable, perhaps (in the long-term, trickle-down, ever-elusive future) even beneficial. This is not because most Canadians are gullible. It’s because, incessantly swamped by neoliberal propaganda and denied knowledge of preferable and workable alternatives, they have no way of choosing or supporting a different vision for Canada.

An old Chinese proverb tells us, profoundly, that “it is better to light a candle than curse the darkness,” and that’s wonderfully good advice in these troubled times. Even the smallest candle can be seen from a long distance, and there are now many candles shining in the blackness of the corporate dystopia. The CCPA Monitor is one of them. So is the CCPA website. So are Our Schools Our Selves, our Alternative Federal Budget, and our many books, studies and reports. So are the publications and campaigns of the many activist pro-justice organizations that have sprung up in Canada and around the world.

Together we are committed to an epic battle—the battle for the minds of our fellow citizens. On the outcome of this momentous struggle hinges the fate of human society, and perhaps of humanity itself. The CCPA and its members are proud to be on the right side of this crusade, morally speaking—which means being on the left side socially and politically.

Let’s keep those candles burning.

(Ed Finn is the CCPA's Senior Editor. He can be reached at [email protected].)